Florida Gators Highs and Lows, Part II: The Ron Zook Era

Joe MorganSenior Analyst IAugust 24, 2008

Joseph is currently writing a series highlighting the best and worst moments in the University of Florida coaching tenures of Steve Spurrier, Ron Zook, and Urban Meyer.

If you would like to read the introduction to this series, click here.

Ron Zook had a very eventful tenure as Florida's head football coach.  Replacing a legend is never easy, especially when you are replacing a legend in your first head coaching job.

Although the Gator faithful didn't make Zook's job easy (see fireronzook.com), he didn't help himself out either, losing five, five, and four games in his three seasons at Florida.

The Zook Era at Florida yielded bad moments, good moments, and moments that left the Gator Nation—as well as their opponents—very confused.

Five Worst Moments

Honorable Mention:  Spat at the Frat House

If Zook hadn’t alienated the student body enough with his coaching performance on Saturdays, this event most likely did him in.

Called in to settle a dispute between some football players and fraternity members, Zook ended up only escalating the situation even further, engaging in a shouting argument with fraternity house members.

This incident was one of several events that eventually led to his firing.

5. Rocked on Rocky Top

In a game that Florida should have won, Ron Zook saw defeat snatched right from the jaws of victory once again.

After a missed extra point kick by James Wilhoit allowed the Gators to cling to a 28-27 fourth quarter lead, Zook was unable to keep his young team poised, and it ultimately cost the Gators in the end.

In a play that dramatically altered the end of the game, Florida wide receiver Dallas Baker was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct after shoving a Volunteer defensive back.

The penalty forced the Gators to punt, allowing Tennessee to drive down the field and Wilhoit to kick the game-winning field goal, giving the Vols a 30-28 win.

4. Home Sweet Home?

“The Swamp.  Only Gators get out alive.”

During his time at Florida, Steve Spurrier turned Ben Hill Griffin Stadium into a death trap for the Gators’ opponents.  Spurrier only lost five games at home during his entire tenure as head coach of the University of Florida, making “the Swamp” one of college football’s most formidable stadiums.

However, Ron Zook managed to diminish the vision of “the Swamp” as a treacherous place to play.  Zook lost an unbelievable five games at home and failed to defeat a ranked opponent at Florida Field during his three years at Florida.

3. Failed Trick Play on Final Play of 2003 Outback Bowl

Trailing Michigan 38-30, the Gators were driving down the field to tie the game and send it to overtime.  Then Zook did the unthinkable.

In the first bowl game of his head coaching career, Zook took the football out of former Heisman finalist Rex Grossman’s hands in favor of a trick play.  The pass was intercepted by the Michigan defense, and the Gators went home losers.  

The Gators recorded five losses in a single season for the first time since 1989, the year before Steve Spurrier became the head coach.

2. Miami Vice

2002: In the first big coaching game of his tenure, the Gators welcomed the Miami Hurricanes to “the Swamp.”  The Gators, led by Heisman finalist Rex Grossman, were set to face the Miami Hurricanes in what was supposed to be one of the top games of the 2002 season.

However, Zook and the coaching staff seemed overwhelmed throughout the game and had no answer for the defending BCS national champions, falling to the ‘Canes 41-16.

2003: The Gators went to down to Miami looking to rebound from a disappointing 8-5 record from the previous season.

For the first three quarters, the Gators dominated Miami, jumping out to a 33-10 lead.  However, ex-Gator Brock Berlin led the Miami offense to four touchdowns and the victory in a heartbreaking 38-33 loss for Zook’s Gators.

I’m not taking any credit away from the Hurricanes’ win, but Zook’s inability to manage the large lead and to keep his young team calm during Miami’s comeback were two major factors that cost the Gators the road victory in this rivalry game.

The Gators also lost to the Hurricanes in the 2004 Peach Bowl, 27-10.  However, defensive coordinator Charlie Strong was acting as the interim head coach due to Zook’s departure for Illinois.

1. Mississippi Burning

Ron Zook could not figure out the state of Mississippi.  It’s almost mind-boggling to think that his Gator teams were 0-3 against Ole Miss and Mississippi State.

Granted, the Rebels did have Eli Manning and were a top team in the SEC West during Zook’s tenure, but the Gators also had a good football team and should have been able to beat Ole Miss in both meetings.

However, the most puzzling loss was to Mississippi State in Starkville.  How Florida managed to lose this game still bugs the Gator Nation to this day.  The Bulldogs came into the game with a record of 1-5 and had a loss to I-AA Maine on their resume.

Nevertheless, Sylvester Croom and the Bulldogs were able to keep up with the Gators all the way, eventually taking the lead and clinching the upset victory, 38-31.

Ron Zook was fired the following Monday.

Five Best Moments

Honorable Mention: The Firing of Ron Zook

After a dismal loss to lowly Mississippi State, athletic director Jeremy Foley had had enough.  Two days after the loss to the Bulldogs, Ron Zook was officially fired from his position as the head football coach at the University of Florida.  Zook decided to stay and finish out the remainder of the regular season.

When the news of Zook’s firing was released, fireronzook.com went into a frenzy, creating a mock newspaper headlined, “VICTORY!”  The success of fireronzook.com dramatically increased the power of the fan base around the entire college football world.  


5. 30-13 Win Over Tennessee in Knoxville

Steve Spurrier was gone.  Vol Nation rejoiced.  No longer would “Darth Visor” patrol the sidelines in Gainesville.  It was now time for the Vols to take their place as the “team to beat” in the SEC East.

Ron Zook and the Gators shocked Tennessee and the rest of the SEC with a stunning blowout of the Volunteers at Neyland Stadium.  With the lopsided victory in Knoxville, the Gators exacted revenge on Tennessee for their 34-32 loss in “the Swamp” one year earlier.

4. Upset Victory Over 2003 BCS National Champion LSU

Freshman quarterback Chris Leak led the 3-3 Gators into Baton Rouge, looking to keep the Gators from falling below a .500 winning percentage.  The No. 2 LSU Tigers, on the other hand, were right in the thick of the national and SEC championship races and needed a win to keep their title hopes alive.

Leak paced the Gator offense, amassing 229 passing yards and tossing two touchdown passes on the way to a 19-7 upset victory.  The Gator defense also proved tough as the Bayou Bengals failed to score an offensive touchdown for the entire game.

Despite the upset, LSU battled back and won the BCS Championship over the Oklahoma Sooners in the Sugar Bowl.

3. The 2003 Recruiting Class

Ron Zook is a great recruiter.  He may have brought in one of the best classes in Florida’s school history, signing many of the seniors who led Florida to the BCS National Championship in 2006.

Zook’s top-ranked class included quarterback Chris Leak, wide receiver Dallas Baker, and linebackers Brandon Siler and Earl Everett, to name a few.  Current head coach Urban Meyer and the rest of the Gator Nation will always give credit to Ron Zook for recruiting the core of Florida’s second national championship team.

2. Ron Zook Field

By the time of the annual rivalry game with Florida State, Ron Zook was a lame duck coach, and the Gators were gunning for a respectable bowl bid.  In a special pre-game ceremony, Florida State University dedicated Booby Bowden Field at Doak Campbell Stadium in honor of their legendary coach.

The game was tightly contested until late in the fourth quarter.  With fewer than three minutes remaining, Florida scored the go-ahead touchdown and defeated the Seminoles 20-13.

After the victory, the Gator players carried Ron Zook off the field.  That would be the last time Zook would be seen wearing Gator blue and orange.

1. Upset of Undefeated Georgia in 2002

The Georgia Bulldogs were cruising as the “World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party” approached.  Head coach Mark Richt had the ‘Dawgs undefeated, and there were talks of a possible national championship in Athens.

But once again, Ron Zook foiled the plans of a title contender, defeating Georgia 20-13.  The Gators took the lead early in the fourth quarter on a 10-yard touchdown pass from Rex Grossman to tight end Ben Troupe.

The Gators were able to hang on for the win, spoiling Georgia’s title hopes.

Despite the loss to the Gators, Georgia went on to win the SEC Championship and the Sugar Bowl.


Although Ron Zook struggled mightily in his three seasons as Florida’s head coach, he managed to do some good for the program at the same time.  He provided the Gators with moments of both jubilation and embarrassment.

In the end, the Gator Nation now appreciates Steve Spurrier’s success at Florida—and winning in general—much more than they did before.

Stay tuned for a rundown of the best and worst moments of Urban Meyer’s current tenure as the head football coach of the Florida Gators.

Joseph would like to note that he is glad that Ron Zook is enjoying success at Illinois and hopes that the Fighting Illini continue to win with Coach Zook at the helm.


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